A personal admission…
I’ll start with an admission, if I may? I have finally owned up to the fact that, for the last twelve months, I have been dabbling and failing to fully articulate what it will take to flourish in the future world of work. But, at last, I am finding my voice; clear in my understanding of how leaders, people and organisations will all need to evolve. My hesitancy has been in part due to the fact that the future feels increasingly precarious, like a bank of dark clouds looming ominously before a storm. You see them but you can’t quite tell if they are going to roll in and smother your hope and dreams, or whether they will dissipate, allowing the sun to break through and shine down once more… As Nelson Mandela wisely said:
“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”
As an optimist, I prefer to frame the future on hopes and dreams, but how will these manifest? As leaders in law, what can we do to take ownership of our personal regeneration and that of our organisations? How do we beat a new path that delivers future success, not only for ourselves but for the communities and environments in which we cohabit?
In an attempt to answer some of these questions, I have spent countless hours poring over LinkedIn posts, as well as a raft of well-researched (but perhaps not so well-reasoned!) articles. While immersing myself in the ongoing discussion around the future world of work (and specifically law), I have occasionally put something out alongside everyone else… But it has not been holistic or sufficiently targeted at the systemic challenges we need to unlock. I have come to realise, in the course of my reading, that our wisdom and insight needs time to mature and be codified before it is shared and accepted. With that in mind, I am finally stepping out of the shadows and finding my real voice around the future of work.
In reality, this article has been cooking for almost a year as part of a bigger plan which Janet (Founder and CEO of Cognia)and I formed when we first spoke about how to fuse the law-related insight she had amassed through Cognia with the wisdom I had developed behind Fiseq. Wisdom, that is grounded in how we can all do more to connect back to our natural world and apply the thinking of various natural sciences to businesses and people. Recognising that all businesses are not static but are analogous to complex living systems – be that at an organism level through to various animal species that adapt to thrive in radically differing environments. Underpinning all of this was our real-life experience, 25 years of working with wonderful organisations and people who have all evolved and changed, often amidst widespread disorder and disruption.
So why now? Well, a new paradigm is clearly needed for law and Cognia’s mission is to be a key player in that evolution, both by creating this paradigm and acting as a catalyst at its centre. Reality check, Joel! Okay, this might only be a small part of solving the overall puzzle, as we are a relatively boutique player in a huge industry, but it is fair to say the impact of CV-19- the “black swan” which nobody saw coming – has galvanized us towards a tipping point for changing how we work.
So, Janet, Joel, and Team Cognia did some thinking on how we introduce this paradigm shift to law. We wanted to tee up a conversation, through a series of LinkedIn articles and points of view on the future world of law; a series that will outline Cognia’s systemic approach to guiding leaders (using a mix of theory and practice) through the capability models they will need to define and build if they are to survive and thrive.
With that in mind, Cognia has collaborated over the last year with the heads of in-house legal functions, CEOs, and C-suite business leaders to understand how they are really thinking about, and planning for, the future world of work. To ensure open and honest insight, many of these conversations were held under the Chatham House Rule, meaning much of what is to follow will not be attributed to individuals but is nonetheless deeply personal.
Framing the landscape for a new systemic paradigm
Let us start with a perspective to set the scene: over the last decade, we have seen an increasing number of companies tasked with transforming their operating models to drive long-term sustainable change. In the legal sector, thinking has been maturing on elements of future capability needs, from requirements for future talent to the maturation of ecosystem partnerships and legal technology. To date, if we are completely frank, there has been little tangible demonstration of real change.
With the arrival of CV-19, there is an increasing focus on transformation, as businesses face potentially significant macroeconomic uncertainty and unprecedented levels of sociopolitical upheaval. Conversely, there has never been a better opportunity to implement change, with traditional ways of working already being in a state of flux. In essence the “tipping point” I mentioned above has moved us from a “peace-time” to that of a “war-time” mindset, in the full realisation that how we solved the challenges of yesterday will not solve those of tomorrow. Specifically, traditional, reductionist, approaches, designed for siloed, mechanistic, and controlling environments, are not applicable for an environment which demands adaptability, collaboration, and experimentation in order to evolve.
Let us start at the beginning with the most critical wisdom we have gathered: all businesses are unique. They all face aslightly different set of external and internal factors, which provide the context for today’s existence and allow them to thrive in tomorrow’s world.
Think about how different penguin breeds have had to
adapt to the different environmental ecosystems they cohabit –
businesses are no different – what is needed for an Emperor
penguin to flourish in Antarctica isn’t what is needed
for a penguin on the tip of Southern Africa.
Our strong belief is that this thinking is what is needed to support legal leaders and businesses in applying a systemic methodology when determining the most appropriate set of performance levers to be fit for the future of their particular business. This requires leaders to adopt a new paradigm which will be critical in how they envision the future world of work. We have been working with clients in exactly this way, referred to by some of my academic friends as outside-in thinking.
Continuing to reflect on environmental factors, it is clear businesses are facing more ominous and inter-connected storms than ever before. CV-19 offers a prime example, as companies continue to have the same pressures as before, plus the complicating factors of operating in an increasingly virtual world with a recession looming on the horizon. Systemically, this means that, before rushing to establish specific future needs (how much of a task will be done by human or machine? what type of legal professionals we will need alongside bots? how can our culture adapt to a virtual world?), we need to build a systems view of the component parts of an organisation, not only for today but also for tomorrow. While developments in technology are an obvious force of disruption, for example the application of AI to legal drafting, there are also underlying organisational considerations which are paramount in the change equation. These range from ESG factors to political and
business shifts, as well as an organisation’s legacy capabilities, enshrined through cultural DNA and industry positioning.
In short, how many of us accept there are major shifts we
need to make to ensure we are not a hostage to the past and
can evolve to become more future-fit?
Why is this essential for me as a leader?
So, how might you start to apply this thinking? Well, firstly by responding to global issues which have risen to the top of the organisational agenda. The Black Lives Matter movement offers a clear example, highlighting the need for greater levels of inclusivity in the workplace and forcing companies to reflect more generally on the need for a stronger sense of organisational purpose and intent. Business leaders must align and agree how they will shift the needle on these matters to enshrine real behavioural change and promote a set of lived values, as opposed to ‘tick box’ exercises or simple promises of future fairness to all.
Business growth and success are going to need to demonstrate regenerative impacts in addition to profit and loss in annual financials. These will need to be sustainable so future generations are assured of a society and environment that meets their needs, and not based on the greed and consumption economics of too many modern businesses. Shareholders and customers will judge sustainable businesses based on how their ethics are enforced across the supplier ecosystem on issues like modern slavery and the company’s carbon footprint. And, if the deal isn’t authentic, shareholders will bail and employees will vote with their feet!
What has this got to do with law? Well, the time has come for legal heads and their teams to move beyond conformance and governance to become progressive and regenerative in the leadership of their organisations. This is about setting out a new purpose and social compass for a future business landscape, where legal will have an influential seat at the top table and be more active in setting the agenda and delivering on the ethical needs and values of an organisation. This will require a new
type of relationship between legal and the rest of the business. It will require legal functions to shift their talent needs to broader and wider professional profiles.
With an outside-in view, and a realisation that a new purpose and approach is needed for legal functions, leaders can focus on a taxonomy of performance levers and subsequent questions they should address for the evolution of in-house teams (which is equally applicable to law firms). These can range from:
• Why are we in business and what culture do we need? How will this be underpinned by our ethics and values?
• What will the regulatory and compliance system require for our organization to maintain its reputation and flourish?
• How will ethics and risk vs value tolerance levels need to adjust?
• How will we organise and structure internally and across our ecosystem of legal providers?
• What hybrid options exist and are we clear on what is core vs non-core to our business?
• How will I best lead and set the tone for legal, especially in a virtual world where all the rules are still forming?
• What does the business need from in-house to support critical decision-making and risk mitigation? What decisions will drive the minimization of value leakage and cost management?
• Finally, how does this all manifest in the Team, Talent, Task and Tech we may need?
A tee up for the next episode…
In our next article, we will start to explore some of these critical questions through the eyes of business leaders, with particular focus on those aspects of leadership which will need to evolve to remain effective in the future world of law. Along with reflections on the transition to an increasingly virtual world, we will share some practical tips and coping strategies adopted by successful leaders during the CV-19 crisis. In so doing, we hope to lay the groundwork for what lies ahead, namely a shift in environment from a high-intimacy virtual workplace, where leaders have become far better at sharing more of themselves more of the time, to a business environment grounded in the reality of a looming recession, which for many will require robust and authentic discussions around performance.